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Saturday, December 30, 2017

Seeking Self Knowledge (by Jiao Ran)

One of the joys of Chinese culture is the vast opportunity it presents for continued learning and discovery -- 浩浩, as a Tang poet would say.  There's really no limit given the enormity of China's literary heritage.  Another day another great new voice is waiting to be discovered.

Yesterday I started reading and translating a cache of poems by a Tang Buddhist monk named Jiao Ran.  Wikipedia lists his dates as 730-799 which places him in what is considered the Middle Tang period.  More of a committed monastic than either Wang Wei or Bai Juyi (who only turned to asceticism in their later years, after extensive careers in government service), Jiao Ran's poetry strikes me as even more deeply infused with the Chan spirit, and also a bit more difficult to penetrate.

Here is my translation of one of his wonderful poems about self-discovery.

Seeking Self-Knowledge

As if you could summon forth
Some memory from the cave  
Or courtyard of youth

You climb up to find yourself
In idleness surrounded
Your body shrouded in mist

White clouds without limit
Encircle the mountain
No matter how hard you try
To buy it outright

Not knowing the mountain’s worth
Nor if it will ever come forth
For any man




*  *  *  *


At the risk of spoiling some of the magic of this poem, I want to briefly comment on the puzzling association, very much evident in the last two stanzas, between money and self-discovery.  What is it that brother Jiao Ran is trying to tell us when he cautions us about the difficulty of buying access to the mountain within?  How I wish I could join him on the mountaintop and ask him for a few further words of explanation.

I'll be publishing translations of a few more of Jiao Ran's poems in the next issue of the Tang Spirit Newsletter.  Click here to sign up for your free copy if you're not already a subscriber.   


  1. These fellows you have been translating, seem not to have entered the path very far. As to the price, well that's understandable as a metaphor for effort and commitment.

    1. Yes Peter, I agree about money as metaphor but nonetheless think it's quite striking for someone who chose to take up the begging bowl as a way of life.

      But as to how far along the path Jiao Ran may have been, I think you and I may be reading the poem differently. After all, the three pillars of Chan/Zen are great persistence, great faith and great doubt. The fact that Jiao Ran emphasized his doubt in this and some of his other poems in no way detracts (as I see it) from his spiritual attainments.

      I should also add, for Jiao Ran and several other Chan poet-monks of the Tang period, there was a fourth pillar of their practice - great eloquence. If that has failed to come through in the translation the fault is all mine and you must take my word that it is very much present in the original.

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